Kiyoko Ono and Takashi Ono in a dining hall at the Olympic Village_PhotoKishimoto

In commemoration of the 56th anniversary of the XVIII Olympiad, here is an excerpt from my book “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes.”

スウェーデンチーム 人命救助へ

 

In pursuit of a greater good, there is often sacrifice, both big and small. In a Japanese culture that prioritizes the group over the individual, keeping personal preferences and needs submerged in order to cater to the perceived interests of the neighborhood, classmates, team members, or colleagues at work are calculations of emotional and social intelligence that Japanese make every day.

 

To the Japanese, the sacrifices the individual must make to the group are most often seen as praiseworthy, symbolic of a powerful value in Japanese society.

 

At the 1964 Olympics, there were two sailors who came in eighteenth overall in a sailing category called the Flying Dutchman (FD) competition. But they came in first in the hearts of the Japanese.

 

On October 14, Stig Lennart Käll and his younger brother, Lars Gunnar Käll, in their boat Hayama, were sailing in the third race of seven in the FD-class competition when they saw a capsized boat ahead of them, and the two crew members floating in the middle of Sagami Bay.

 

Making a quick decision, the Käll brothers steered their way toward Australian sailor Ian Charles Winter, and plucked him out of the water. They then proceeded to the capsized Australian boat, Diablo, to rescue the second member of that crew, John Gregory Dawe, and pulled him into their boat as well. In addition to the Australians, six other boats failed to complete the race, which likely meant rough conditions. And yet, the Swedes, with two extra passengers, still managed to finish the heat.

 

The exploits of the Swedish crew were publicized nationally in the Japanese press. Fans from all over the country sent a barrage of letters and gifts of appreciation to the two Swedish sailors who were singled out for their sacrifice to the greater good.

 

It was also well publicized that the captain of the Japanese women’s volleyball team was making a sacrifice for the good of her volleyball team, as well as for the country. At the age of thirty-one, the team captain, Masae Kasai, was older by about six or seven years than most of her teammates. She had intended to retire from volleyball and get married after leading her team to Japan’s first World Championship in a victory over the Soviet Union in 1962. In fact, some felt that Kasai’s duty to Japanese society, as a woman, was to get married and have children, not to play volleyball. Kasai herself made it clear she wanted to move on and start a family.

 

But in the end, the call for gold and glory for Japan at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was so strong that she decided to delay retirement, and thus surrender herself to two more years of long, punishing hours in the gym. Her sacrifice was eventually rewarded, however, as she did make it to the altar in a highly publicized wedding after the Games ended.

 

Another story was that of Takashi Ono, the legendary veteran gymnast from Akita, Japan, who had already garnered twelve medals (including four golds) from the 1952, 1956, and 1960 Olympiads. At thirty-three, Ono was the oldest member of the 1964 team.

 

Ono’s strongest discipline was the horizontal bar. It was vital he did his best to give his team a chance for gold. But Ono was in considerable pain due to a right shoulder injured in his preparations for the Olympics. To ease the discomfort, he was injected with an anesthetic, which resulted in the loss of feeling in his entire arm.

 

According to Rio Otomo, who wrote about the gymnast in her article, Narratives of the Body and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Ono’s injury was a major narrative of the Olympics, one also taken up by famed writer Yukio Mishima:

 

The horizontal bar had been cruelly attacking his shoulder for some time. His shoulder then became the enemy of the perfection that Ono was aiming to achieve. It was assaulting him from within, as if it had been a spy who sold his soul to the enemy camp.

 

Less known to the public were the apprehensions of Ono’s wife and teammate on the women’s gymnastics team. As Otomo wrote, Kiyoko Ono was concerned that attempting difficult maneuvers in the air with a damaged arm could result in a terrible fall, and so she whispered to her husband as he approached the bar, “Please do not die; we have children.”

 

Not only did Ono survive, the grit he showed that day helped lead his team to the gold medal.

In commemoration of the 56th anniversary of the XVIII Olympiad, here is an excerpt from my book “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes.”
日本語版:「原爆っ子」とアメリカへのささやかな抵抗

Seventeen-year-old Dick Roth, winner of the individual medley race at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, was thirteen years old when he first travelled with the US swim team to Japan in 1960. He remembers being treated like a celebrity. Toward the end of his stay, the team went to Nikko, the beautiful resort town not far from Tokyo. And while walking about the woods with the team, he saw something he clearly remembers today.

I wandered off on my own, which was a habit I have when I travel, skipping the handlers. I was walking back to the lodge and I came face to face with a group of eight to ten horribly disfigured children of my age, probably older. They were from Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Later I talked with one of my handlers and asked about them. He said they were also on a tour. The organizers were trying to keep us apart. I was shocked and horrified. To think anyone could do anything so barbaric. I know we dropped the bomb to shorten the war. But it’s a visceral feeling I will never forget.

Back in Tokyo four years later, Roth also remembers the Opening Ceremonies when a sole torchbearer ran into the National Stadium. “The torchbearer came in and there was cheering and a kind of reverence. I don’t know what to call it. The attention was locked on this individual. I was stunned by the switch in the crowd. He got to the top and turned around. It was like another one of those moments that defies description. When he stood there and held the torch high, I was stunned.”

Roth was referring to Yoshinori Sakai, who was born in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the day an atomic bomb was dropped on his city. “When he reached the bottom of the stairs he didn’t stop, just ran up the stairs in stride. He only paused at the top, turning to face the full stadium and the world. He then turned and lit the flame, causing an entire nation a collective moment of pride and sadness.”

It was a bold move. For a country that was trying desperately to erase from its collective memory the horrors of World War II, the Olympic organizers risked offending the United States of America by reminding the world that Japan was the first and only country to be attacked by nuclear weapons.

In fact, prominent Japanophile and translator of such classics as The Tale of Genji, American Edwin Seidensticker, said that the selection of Sakai as the final torchbearer was not “incidental,” and was “unpleasant to Americans.”

When G. D. Sondhi of India, a member of the International Olympic Committee who had just witnessed Sakai’s torch lighting at the opening ceremonies, was asked to comment on Seidensticker’s reaction, he replied, “He (Sakai) is good and I’m happy to see him do it so nicely. We must bring young people in the Olympics and let those old men just sit and help them.” Sondhi went on to say that he did not think Sakai’s selection to be political, and rather thought that Sakai represented “a big hope” for Japan, and that his was “the most touching of all Olympic ceremonies I ever saw.”

Still, it’s amazing that the organizers, on Japan’s biggest day, consciously chose to highlight Hiroshima via Sakai—whom the press dubbed “Atomic Bomb Boy”—a poke in the ribs of the United States.

Superhero Movie

Superheroes often emerge from intense pain and suffering, according to their origin stories.

Jean-Baptiste Alaize was three years old when he witnessed the slaughter of his Tutsi mother at the hands of Hutus during the Burundi Civil War, and he himself fell to four machete blows that resulted in the loss of a leg.

Bebe Vio was eleven years old when she fell in a coma induced by a battle with meningitis, a condition akin to “imploding inside.” A budding fencing star and a ball of energy, the Italian pre-teen had to make the horrible decision to amputate both arms and legs to thwart the advance of the disease.

Tatyana McFadden was born in the Soviet Union with a congenital disorder which paralyzed her from the waist down at birth, in a country that did not officially recognize the existence of disabled people.

However, these three and many others profiled in a recently released Netflix documentary found redemption and achievement in sport. The film, Rising Phoenix, is an impassioned introduction to the Paralympic movement. Layering on top of the powerful theme of Channel 4’s marketing of the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Paralympics – We’re the Superhumans! – Rising Phoenix gives Para athletes the Hollywood superhero treatment.

The production values of Rising Phoenix can be described as lavish. Aussie swimmer Ellie Cole is shot dancing under water, rays of light piercing the dark waters. Alaize sits open and relaxed on a spacious couch in an ornate French Baroque setting. South African sprinter Ntandu Mahlangu is interviewed with an actual cheetah in repose at his own cheetah blades. And Vio is filmed lovingly in slow motion, strapped to a wheelchair, lunging and gyrating to angelic music.

And yet when it comes to recognizing the disabled, Rising Phoenix is the exception. Every superhero has a weakness. For Superman, it is kryptonite. For Para athletes, and people with disabilities, it is apathy.

Rising Phoenix is a tale of Two Paralympics, nearly the best of times and the worst of times for the paramount global event for athletes with disabilities. The 2012 London Paralympics were a triumph of the organizers, an event that packed the stadiums and arenas, energized a city, and inspired the world. The 2016 Rio Olympics, as we learn in the film, nearly ended the Paralympic movement.

Rising Rio

Seven weeks before the start of the 2016 Rio Paralympics, then president of the Brazilian Paralympic Committee. Andrew Parsons was given terrible news by the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games – they did not have enough money to run the Paralympic Games.

“Fµ©≤ing hell,” said Sir Philip Craven, then president of the International Paralympic Committee. “There was no money.”

“They are not telling you, we can do that, or we can do that,” said Xavier Gonzalez, CEO of the IPC at that time. “They are telling you we cannot organize the games. I couldn’t at that moment see how we could fix it. And that was scary.”

And as potential Rio Paralympians began to understand that the rumors were true, they had that sinking, familiar feeling from childhood, their teenage years, and still today: unfairness, humiliation, helplessness. Said two-time T-44 men’s 100-meter sprint champion, Jonnie Peacock of Team GB, “you just feel like these people don’t view the Paralympics as anything.”

Parsons explained in exasperation how he could not give clear answers to the national Paralympic committees who worried whether the Games would happen or not. But he and the filmmakers were explicit in explaining who was to blame. Speaking over images of the Rio Olympic Organizing Committee, including chairman Carlos Nuzman, who was subsequently arrested for corruption and bribery, Parsons said, “forget about these guys, the leadership, because they won’t help.”

Rising Phoenix goes on to tell the nail-biting story of how IPC leadership, Parsons, Craven and Gonzalez, convinced the Brazilian government and skeptical authorities to keep this dream alive not only for over 4,300 Para athletes, but also for 24 million persons of disability in Brazil.

The 2012 London Paralympics is held up as the gold standard for awakening the world to the incredible athletic abilities of Para athletes. But it is the 2016 Rio Paralympics that may have saved the movement. Said Craven, “We’d have really broken the cycle. Confidence wouldn’t have been there in the future. It would (have been) the extinguishing of that Paralympic flame.”

Changing the World

Instead, the flame burns brightly today. Rising Phoenix brings alive the power of the movement, and the dreams of these superheroes.

  • The incredible story of the movement’s founder, Ludwig Guttman
  • The reunification of mother and child as summer Paralympian, Tatyana McFadden wins cross-country silver in the Winter Paralympics in her country of birth, Russia.
  • The dramatic and stirring gold medal victory of ebullient Bebe Vio in wheelchair fencing, who carries you on her shoulders in waves of joy.

“No one stays the same after watching the movie,” said Parsons in a recent interview with 20 foreign chambers of commerce in Japan. “If ten people watch the movie, ten people will be changed. If ten million people watch the movie, ten million people will be changed. I want the entire world to watch this movie.”

So do I.

Note: All film poster images shared with permission of the IPC.

“I was supposed to be in Tokyo today, rehearsing my opening speech,” said Andrew Parsons wistfully.

It was a little after 8pm on Monday, August 24, 2020 Japan time. Parsons, the President of the International Paralympics Committee (IPC), was addressing members of 20 foreign chambers of commerce in Japan in a Zoom meeting. The event marked one year to go for the Tokyo2020 Paralympics.

The Paralympics would have kicked off in Japan on Tuesday, August 25, 2020 if not for the devastating and global impact of COVID-19 virus. It was March 24, 2020 when the fateful decision was made to postpone both the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics for a year. “That decision was not taken lightly, but it was the right one,” said Parsons. “Had the games been tomorrow, there’s no chance they would have happened.”

Putting the Puzzle Back Together

March 24 brought devastating news to the organizers in Japan. Yasushi Yamawaki, IPC Governing Board Member at Large and Tokyo 2020 Vice President said they were more than surprised.

“When the decision was made to postpone the games, most of the staff and partners, were very much shocked. They had spent seven years putting together the biggest and most complicated jigsaw puzzle. And with a few pieces to go, they were told to start over again.”

There are dozens of major sponsors, over 180 National Paralympic Committees, dozens of international sports federations, and thousands of athletes who had questions. But for the IPC, a huge question that had to be answered was how to ensure funding for Tokyo2020 in 2021. As Craig Spence, IPC Chief Brand & Communications Officer, explained, it was critical to re-do the contracts with the broadcasters first.

“From an IPC point of view, we had to review 300 contracts in the space of two weeks. We have TV contracts with 165 broadcasters. Each contract needed to be reviewed. And each contract impacted the cash flow of the IPC for 2020 because we were due money this year, but the TV contract was then moved to next year.”

And Parsons reminded everybody that this incredibly complex and urgent work had to be done in the challenging environment of a pandemic. “We had to manage our cash flow,” said Parsons. “But we also needed to work with our staff all over the world, many of whom were living away from their families during the most demanding period ever for the IPC.”

Parsons is hopeful, but he is realistic. He said that everything that can be done, that can be controlled, will be. Planning will continue through the end of September. The IPC will focus on countermeasures to COVID-19 in the last quarter of 2020, and then will enter operational readiness in the first quarter of 2021. After that, important decisions will have to be made.

“We still have one year to go. We will follow the development of the pandemic. Unfortunately, none of us have a crystal ball. We have to work as if the Games are going ahead. This is the tricky part – how to work towards something you don’t know 100% is going ahead or not. But at the moment we are working full speed ahead preparing for the Games as if they are happening.”

The postponement resulted in a re-planning process that prioritized two things: the safety and health of the athletes and an approach to budgeting only what is necessary, a sustainability mindset that can be applied to future Paralympics, something that Parsons calls the Principles. “In these principles, the safety of athletes Is the number 1 priority for us,” said Parsons. “Everything that is not fundamental for the Games will be downscaled or cut.”

No Question of the Tokyo2020 Legacy

The Paralympics were postponed for a year. But Tokyo2020 is already establishing a legacy in Japan. Yamawaki explained that Tokyo is one of the most accessible cities in the world for the disabled, and that the media showcases the capabilities and personalities of the Para athletes almost on a daily basis.

Spence shared comparative data showing the impact of the run-up to the Games.

“In the build up to London 2012 with 18 months to go, less than 1% of the British population could name a Paralympian, and everyone sees London as the benchmark. In Tokyo last year, 45% of the Japanese population could recognize Shingo Kunieda, the wheelchair tennis player. So that shows the real difference in interest. In terms of accessible transport, I think when Tokyo won the right to stage the Games, around 75% of the city’s metro stations were accessible. By the time the Games happen next year, that’s going to be at 99%. That would never have happened had it not been for the Paralympics coming to Tokyo. The legacies are going to be tremendous.” 

Yamawaki oversees the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center, which is driving a groundbreaking education program in Japan’s school system. The IPC’s “I’mPossible” program – a toolkit of resources designed to engage 6-12 year old students about the Paralympic movement – is being pioneered in Japan with great success. Yamawaki said that this program has been delivered to 36,000 primary and secondary schools across Japan.

Children can learn from this unique learning opportunity,” said Yamawaki. “They will become future leaders in creating an inclusive society in this country after the Paralympics are over. It’s going to be one of the biggest legacies. Usually the parents teach the children, but in the I’mPossible program, kids teach the parents. This will increase parents’ awareness of the Paralympic Games and Paralympic sports. That’s the biggest impact we’re seeing.”

What You Can Do

Here are a few suggestions from IPC leaders on what we all can do to support the Paralympics broadly, and people with disabilities specifically.

Employ Persons with Disabilities: If your company does not employ persons with disabilities, it should. If your office is not set up to deal with people in wheelchairs, put in ramps. If you have a restaurant or a canteen, make your menus available in braille, or put your information on the internet so that people with disabilities can more easily access the information.

See the Opportunity: As Spence explained, before he joined the IPC, he didn’t realize people with disabilities are such great problem solvers.

“People with disabilities face challenges on a daily basis. They don’t tend to moan. They don’t just sit around thinking I can’t get around this. They always find innovative ways to get around and beat the challenge. They can bring a whole new creativity and new outlook to your business.”

Go See the Games: Seeing the Para athletes in action will change your attitude for life. Get as many people around you to see the Games.

“There’s very few people in the world who can run 100 meters in under 10.5 seconds,” said Spence. “Yet we have athletes with prosthetic legs and running blades who can do it in 10.4 seconds. It really does challenge perceptions towards disability.”

See my review for Rising Phoenix.
Rising Phoenix: The Stirring Netflix Documentary on the Paralympic Movement that Seeks to Change the World

one year to go pins

It’s One Year to Go!

On Friday, July 23, 2021 – 365 days from now –  the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will start!

I hope.

In this time of uncertainty, hope is all we have. No one can guarantee an Olympics in Tokyo. No one knows if the world will be healthy enough to come together in Tokyo a year from now.

With coronavirus infections on the rise in certain regions of the world, in particular the United States, doubt remains. Professional baseball has started in Korea and Japan. Football has commenced in Europe. Baseball, basketball and ice hockey are about to return to the United States. But no can say if they can finish what they start.

In Japan, as the number of infections climb, particularly in Tokyo, public sentiment towards the Olympics next year is running negative. Less than 40% of Japanese in a recent survey stated they would want to attend an Olympic or Paralympic event. This is only a year after over 7 million Japanese bought up nearly 8 million tickets in the opening stage of the ticket lottery, setting the tone for what was arguably to become the most popular Olympics ever.

Today, even if you have tickets, it’s unclear whether you’ll be allowed to go to the events. Right now, it doesn’t look good.

And yet, there’s still one year to go.

We face adversity all the time. Sometimes barriers or problems we face are out of our control, spiraling us into a vortex of hopelessness. But time and time again, we persevere, we see winds shift and fortunes change.

At times, film can powerfully convey our innate ability to overcome. I cite three scenes from movies you know.

First we do everything we can to put ourselves in a position to achieve our goal in the face of adversity. Al Pacino captured this mindset powerfully in his halftime speech to his football team, the film “Any Given Sunday.” He states the reality: “We are in hell right now, gentlemen.” But then tells them that “life is just a game of inches….” and that “the inches we need are everywhere around us,” and that “on this team, we fight for that inch.”

I believe there are many people around the world fighting for those inches, to cure the virus, as well as make sports in general, and Tokyo2020 in particular, safe.

In the final film of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo is ready to give up in his quest to save Middle Earth. But his friend, Sam, is not ready to give up on Frodo, literally lifting and carrying him forward.

I believe there are many people around the world willing to carry us when we are down, remind us of better times, and tell us those times will return.

And in the movie, Henry V, Kenneth Branagh brings incredible joy and energy to young King Harry as he wills his ragtag troops to take on the bigger, fresher French army at the Battle of Agincourt. Outnumbered, in the face of what they believe to be certain death, the men of England are inspired by King Henry to imagine a world when they have survived this battle and lived to a ripe age, telling their children of the scars they got and the feats they achieved that miraculous day in France.

I believe there are many people who see in their mind’s eye a packed stadium, a field filled with the best athletes in the world, and a brilliant blue sky, telling us all that anything is possible, including a Summer Games in 2021.

If there are people who fight for that inch,

If there are people who carry us when we need them,

If there are people who paint us a picture of a glorious future,

then there is hope.

See you in Tokyo, in a year.

Max Whitlock sofa
Max Whitlock showing off in a new sport – pommel couch.

Two-time Olympian and five-time medalist in gymnastics for Team GB, Max Whitlock, has been helping his gymnastic colleagues stay in shape with his #GymnasticsWithMax series. On a lighter note, he showed a new event he created – “pommel couch.”

The first Team USA sports climber selected for Tokyo2020 was Brooke Raboutou, who has been keeping sharp by getting around her house without touching the floor. Here she is getting a snack.

Oktawia Nowacka, the bronze medalist in modern pentathlon at the 2016 Rio Olympics, stays in shape at home in Starogard Gdanski Poland with a variety of exercises that require s litle open space, furniture, resistance bands and a dog.

Retired javelin thrower, James Campbell, raised GBP26,000 by running the equivalent distance of a marathon in his garden. April 1 was his birthday so he decided to do celebrate in a most monotonous manner – circling the grounds of his 6-meter long garden area for over five hours. Campbell from Chelthenham, England set the Scottish record in the javelin throw at 80.38 meters, which stands today.

 

Mary Pruden is a sophomore swimmer at Columbia University who gave it her all in a 100 individual medley race. So inspiring were Pruden’s efforts that sports broadcasters Dan Hicks and Rodney Gaines dubbed their play-by-play onto Pruden’s video, this “race of the century.”

Rikako Ikee in the pool
言葉に表せないくらい嬉しくて、気持ちが良くて、幸せです。 “Words can’d describe how happy I am! It feels so good to be back in the pool. I’m so happy!” – Rikako Ikee, 406 days after being told that she can’t swim and compete in Tokyo2020.

 

It’s official. Tokyo 2020 is happening in 2021.

What does that mean? What impact does the change have on anything?

Firstly, I hope it gives  swimmer Rikako Ikee a chance to compete. One of Japan’s rising stars, the then 18-year-old Ikee became the first swimmer to win six gold medals in the Asian Games back in August, 2018. Six months later, Ikee was diagnosed with leukemia, and had to cease all competitive training in order to defeat the cancer. She promised her fans to be back in racing form for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

On the road to recovery, Ikee posted the above Instagram picture on March 17, happy to finally get permission from the doctor to swim again. She said in the Instagram post that there were no words to describe how happy she was, and what a great feeling it was to be back in the pool.

I hope that somehow, Ikee is able to fully recover, get herself back in shape within a year, and swim in Tokyo, for her legion of fans.

Here are a few more random thoughts:

Four-Day Weekend: A couple of public holidays were moved around to give the country days off on Thursday, July 23, and Friday, July 24, in order to create a less congested Tokyo at the start of the 2020 Tokyo  Olympics. Do we still get to keep that long weekend?

Russian Roulette: In December of 2019, Russia was banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) from competing at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, as well as the 2022 Beijing Olympics. While Russian athletes could compete as “neutrals” if they can prove they have not doped, the case is still being appealed by Russia in front of the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Maybe the extra year helps them figure out how to sway the courts to allow Russia representation in Tokyo.

Olympic Village: Before the virus hit the fan, the rooms in the Olympic Village that would be converted into condos after the Games were seeing strong demand last year, with applicants outstripping number of rooms at a rate of 2.5 to 1. Will those who bought into the Harumi waterfront property have to wait a little longer to enter their Olympian abodes?

Summer Days: The 2020 Games were scheduled for July 24 to August 9. The equivalent time period would be July 23 to August 8, missing by a day that opportunity to end the Tokyo Games on the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki, as would have been the case in 2020.

A Marathon Battle: The IOC unilaterally moved the men’s and women’s marathons from the streets of Tokyo to Sapporo on November 1, last year. Will Tokyo governor, Yuriko Koike, make another push to restore the marathon to Tokyo?

Coronavirus Redux: If viruses like Coronavirus thrive in cold weather, will we see a recurrence in the next winter? Will we experience the anxiety of rising fevers and uncovered sneezes as the temperatures dip, making everyone wonder if an outbreak were imminent?

Kansai Masters: The “Olympics” for 35 years and older, The 10th World Masters, is coming to Japan from May 14 – 30. Thousands of athletes from 35 to 105 will be coming from all over the world to compete To be held in the Western part of Japan, the Masters will be the canary in the coal mine, as it were. If a virus is lurking in the Spring of 2021, the organizers of the Kansai Masters will be tasked with tough decisions.

Odd Year: Tokyo2020 will still be called Tokyo2020, despite the Games taking place in 2021, the first time for an Olympiad to be held in an odd year.

2021 will be an odd year. But I give it an even chance to be great.

Tokyo 2020 + 1.

Can’t wait.

Nearly 70% of people do not expect the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games to be held as scheduled, according to a Kyodo News survey in early March.

The reason is the global impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

From Shanghai to Rome, from London to New York, we’re seeing the most populous cities in the world turn into ghost towns overnight.

So while the Japanese feel that holding the Olympics and Paralympics may be impossible this year, they are doing so in a country that is surprisingly sociable. While the same Kyodo News survey showed that 44.3% of the Japanese survey disapproved of the government measures, people are out and about in ways that would be shocking to people elsewhere in the world.

Gakugeidaigaku 15March and Shibuya 21March
People out and about on March 15 in my neighborhood in Meguro (left), and on March 21 in Shibuya (right).

Yes, Japan had the scare of the Diamond Princess, a story brought live by Twitter and TV into the phones and homes of every citizen here. And when the passengers were released in a seemingly slipshod and insecure manner, there were fears of a potential outbreak in Japan.

Surprisingly, the outbreak never happened in Japan. Other countries raced ahead of Japan in terms of number of infections or coronavirus-related deaths. While other Asian nations got praise for their swift response regarding policies and testing, Japan has been criticized for its relatively limited testing and perceived lack of transparency. Still Japan is quietly sharing numbers that reflect a relatively low number of infections, and perhaps more significantly, a much lower number of reported hospitalizations and deaths due to coronavirus.

movie theater_8March
At least Japanese are refraining from movie theaters_Futagotamagawa on Sunday afternoon, March 8.

Is Japan exceptional? We’ll have to wait for the research after the pandemic has run its course, but this article cites several reasons why Japan may be ahead of the curve when it comes to fighting off coronavirus:

  • the most vulnerable demographic – 65 and older – is a very healthy one in Japan
  • Japan’s national health system is accessible to all and inexpensive
  • Senior care services are abundant and inexpensive
  • Japanese hospitals are experienced in detecting early and treating respiratory ailments in the elderly, and
  • Japanese  are very hygiene conscious, and do not have customs like hand shaking and kissing

Two months after the horror show that was the Diamond Princess, the Japanese health system is handling the comparatively small number of cases coming its way.

Farmers Market 5
The Farmers Market in front of the United Nations University Building in Shibuya open for business on Saturday, March 21. No ghosts here.

So while corporations across Japan have cancelled large events and large meetings, implemented policies that restrict movement and encourage work from home, there are still many people commuting to work in buses and trains.

While people in Japan are discouraged not to gather for cherry blossom viewing parties as the sakura begin to bloom this weekend, the restaurants and shopping areas are still filled with people.

Public schools all over Japan closed down a couple of weeks before the beginning of Spring Break. And yet, only several weeks later, the government is now recommending that  schools re-open (assuming there are no new confirmed cases) as planned at the beginning of the new academic year in April.

To the outsider, Japan may be compared to Nero fiddling while his city burned. But so far, the numbers are not indicating a city on fire.

Yes, it is strange to live in Japan today. Surreal in fact.

I think I’ll go for a walk among the cherry trees.

lining up for masks and restaurant in Shibuya
In Shibuya, on March 21, people were lining up for masks (left), as well as for their favorite restaurants (right).

The Surreality of Tokyo2020 in the Era of Coronovirus Part 1: Are We Witnessing Effective Decision Making or the Rearranging of Deck Chairs on the Titanic?

Diamond Princess

We followed the story of the Diamond Princess as if we were binge watching a Stephen King adaptation on Netflix – with fascination and fear.

 

The two-week quarantine of the 3,711 passengers and crew on the British grand-class cruise ship docked at Yokohama harbor was a constant reminder to the Japanese of how close the coronavirus outbreak has come to Japanese shores. The death of two elderly passengers on board the Diamond Princess on February 20 at the end of the quarantine intensified the concern over the Japanese government’s decision to release hundreds of passengers who tested negative for the virus.

 

In fact, as the number of reported infections on the ship climbed, so too did the number of reported infections across Japan: Kanagawa, Wakayama, Hokkaido, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Okinawa, Kyushu, Aichi, Chiba….

 

Masks are the coinage of the land. Tokyo and Kyoto are no longer swarming with tourists as inbound cancellations climb. Announcements of meeting and conference cancellations in companies across the country are coming hard and fast. Organizers for the March 1 Tokyo Marathon and the March 8 Nagoya Women’s Marathon are dropping tens of thousands or participants from the race, and allowing only the elite runners to compete.

 

And then there’s the elephant in the room.

 

Will the Tokyo2020 Olympics be cancelled?

 

Yashiro Mori, former Japan prime minister and current president of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games pointed at the elephant in the room and said:

 

I would like to make it clear again that we are not considering a cancellation or postponement of the games. Let me make that clear.

 

That was February 13, just before the cases of coronavirus began to crisscross the country.

 

Dr. Hitoshi Oshitani, a Japanese virologist, said on February 19 that the Olympics could not take place today.

 

“I’m not sure [of] the situation in Japan at the end of July,” he said at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan on Wednesday, as per The Associated Press. “We need to find the best way to have a safe Olympics. Right now we don’t have an effective strategy, and I think it may be difficult to have the Olympics [now]. But by the end of July we may be in a different situation.”

 

Or we may not be.

 

We have no cure for coronavirus right now. We understand so little about the latest virus outbreak. And in the absence of clear facts, what often fills the void is doubt, speculation and fear.

 

Am I safe? Will a cure be found in time? Will the virus burn out as the temperature climbs?

 

Will the Olympics be cancelled, its sunk cost like an albatross around the necks of the country, the IOC and the massive number of organizations and businesses that have invested in these Games?

Or will the Olympics rise like a Phoenix, overcoming crisis, sending our spirits aloft?

 

Note: This article was written on February 22, in the midst of daily changes and updates regarding the coronavirus in Japan.

Trash Island Talk_Kietlinski_1
Associate Professor Robin Kietlinski

It’s amazing to think – over one third of all 44 venues for the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics are in the Tokyo Bay, landfill property developed over centuries, but particularly over the past 100 years.

According to Associate Professor Robin Kietlinski of LaGuardia Community College of the City University of New York, 16 venues for the Olympics will be held in what had been previously the open waters of Tokyo Bay.

In a talk Dr. Kietlinski gave on Friday, September 27, 2019, at the newly opened Japan campus of Temple University, she explained how the physical landmass of Tokyo along the Western edges of Tokyo Bay began to grow when Edo was established in the early 17th century as the de facto capital of Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate. But in the aftermath of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, and the firebombings of Tokyo during World War II, rubble was poured into the western and northern shores of Tokyo Bay.

Trash Island Talk_Kietlinski_2
A slide from Associate Professor Robin Kietlinski’s presentation showing the transformation of Tokyo Bay over the centuries.

Around the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, when the engine of the Japanese economic miracle was really beginning to rev, the waste produced by the tremendous growth in population, industry and consumerism was growing faster than they could manage it. Tokyo waterways were polluted and odorous. The landfill in Tokyo Bay became the dumping grounds of Tokyo, and ran rampant with rodents and flies. As I wrote in this blog post on Yumenoshima, site of Olympic archery next year, the Self Defense Forces had to be called into exterminate the fly infestation.

Today, as Dr. Kietlinski explained, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has built waste processing plants that pulverize and incinerate waste. All of the incinerator ash is then used for landfill in Tokyo Bay, continuing plans to increase the terrestrial space in the bay, according to this explanation of waste management from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

Infinity Heritage and Tokyo Bay Area Zones

Here is a list of all of the venues, including the Olympic Village, that sit in the middle of Tokyo Bay. You can see get more information on the Olympic venues here.

  • Aomi Urban Sports Park – 3×3 basketball, sport climbing
  • Ariake Arena – volleyball
  • Ariake Gymnastics Center -gymnastics
  • Ariake Tennis Park – tennis
  • Ariake Urban Sports Park – BMX, skateboarding
  • IBC/MPC (International Broadcast Center/Main Press Center)
  • Kasai Canoe Slalom Center – canoe (slalom)
  • Odaiba Marine Park – marathon swimming, triathlon
  • Oi Hockey Stadium – field hockey
  • Olympic Village
  • Tatsumi Water Polo Center – water polo
  • Tokyo Aquatics Center – swimming, diving, synchronized swimming
  • Sea Forest Cross-Country Course – equestrian
  • Sea Forest Waterway – canoe (sprint) and rowing
  • Shiokaze Park – beach volleyball
  • Yumenoshima Park Archery Field – archery